These days, horse owners often use their cell phones to photograph a physical problem with their horses to show their veterinarians.
An owner phoned me recently to say that her horse had severely injured both front knees, but the right one was worse. The animal had first shown a knee injury a few months earlier, but it was only a small cut, so the owner had treated it herself.
Later, the horse apparently ran into a fence, as both knees were injured. The owner duly bandaged the knees and the swelling subsided, but when she stopped bandaging the right one, the horse injured it again.
Each time the horse was injured it became lame, but then recovered within a week or so.
A photograph sent by the owner showed an obviously swollen knee (see below), so I advised her to call a veterinarian.
When a veterinarian sees a patient, he or she is obliged to carry out a full clinical examination. This horse’s knees were an obvious problem, so they were palpated and manipulated. There was chronic swelling of the joints and tendons, but neither were very painful.
After the veterinarian had checked the horse’s temperature, respiration and heart rate, the animal was trotted out to test for lameness. Although it was not severely lame in the fore, it seemed to be stumbling; it held its head at a slightly twisted angle when led.
The right diagnosis
It turned out that the actual reason for the swollen knees was that the horse was losing its balance and falling due to a neurological problem in its neck vertebrae.
The knee problems seen in this animal were sometimes called ‘broken knees’ in carriage horses.
It was important to check for this injury when buying a carriage horse as it was a sign that the animal was likely to go down’ in the traces, which could cause serious accidents.
These were often horses that had developed back or shoulder injuries after being worked too hard and being forced to pull too many heavy loads.
Some horses also suffered neck injuries when their heads were cranked into high, over-bent positions to make them look “proud”.
In this case, too, a neck injury had caused the horse to stumble and injure its knees. The animal had previously been used for endurance riding and had done well. Since then, it had been turned out in a paddock during the day for a few weeks and had apparently injured its neck some time before it started stumbling.
The veterinarian referred the horse for physiotherapy and treated it with anti-inflammatory medications in the hope that the knees would improve if the neck injury could be successfully treated.
Viruses like herpes and West Nile fever can also result in a horse losing its balance, as well as suffering neck and back injuries.
Another frequent cause of stumbling is a poorly fitted saddle that pinches the shoulders and prevents the horse from moving properly. Stumbling can even be caused by a tooth abscess or an ear infection.
Always call a vet if your horse shows these sorts of knee injuries.
Dr Mac is an academic, a practising equine veterinarian and a stud owner.